Sunday, 10 June 2012

Over simplifying Tesco's model of improvement & its transferability to public services.

Today's Sunday Times carried its usual Think Tank piece on New Ideas for the 21st Century. I suspect in the hope of increasing sales of his new book, Sir Terry Leahy shared his views on how the public sector can learn from Tesco. Sir Terry was the CX of Tesco's while it was still an exemplar for all and before it signed up to the free labour of the Work Programme.

His opening salvo was that "as they queued for hours to have their passports checked at Heathrow, many travellers must have wondered why they had to wait only a matter of minutes - at most- to buy their weekly shop at a supermarket."

I hate to rain on Terry's parade but I wonder when he last visited a Tesco's as a mystery shopper. I took the attached photograph late evening, a few weeks ago, at my local Tesco.  I haven't been back since!  Behind the rows of wheeled cages waiting for the army of 'outside peak hours shelf stackers' are the checkouts. Even the aisles were blocked and it was difficult moving some of the cages to actually get to the shelves.  I wonder how often Terry has actually experienced real-life in Tesco!

Nevertheless Terry has an answer for public services improvement. Competition which enables customer choice is the foundation of his philosophy. Not exactly new but slightly harder when you try to transfer to the Borders Agency.  Of course we would like the choice of an array of providers when we try to make our way through Border controls but only when they all match a basic standard in spotting the undesirable and keeping them out.  It's not exactly the same as Tesco where I have the choice whether or not to shop there or indeed just leave my loaded trolley and take the nearest exit with hands in pockets.

Terry suggests the public sector need a culture change so that everyone will 'think customer'.  I think we heard that before with the pursuit of Charter Marks.  However, that was before many started to throw stones at the public sector, significantly reduce the numbers regardless of expertise, and change their pension provision - wasn't there once a mantra of staff being the biggest asset and IiP.  I'm not so sure Tesco staff would be that customer focussed if they felt under-valued and cheated.  Come to think of it, on the evening I took the attached photograph I just didn't get the feeling too many Tesco staff were whistling a happy song while they worked or showed the least interest in making my customer experience something to sing about.

Two critical successful factors exist in Terry's McTesco view of public service improvement. Firstly, all senior managers need to walk the floor and, secondly, communicate clearly the goals of the organisation and performance manage against those.

We have previously had Michael Barber's  excellent book, Instruction to Deliver, explaining the Blair performance management structure which has now been dismantled as a result of a belief it was no longer necessary, even through to the CPA regime.

Forgive if I am wrong but do walking the floor and communication of goals not both converge with clear leadership. There does seem to be an issue here which Sir T has sadly overlooked, leadership in the public sector is divided and slightly more complicated than in supermarkets. On the one hand you have political leadership and on the other managerial leadership. It strikes me that political and managerial leaders just don't seem to have a shared view on either what's broken or how to fix it.  That's further complicated in coalition government when the political leadership don't seem to have a shared view either.

While Mr T, sorry Sir T, encourages senior managers to get on the front line he forgets one of the other success factors for business, namely, listening to those on the front line.  There seems to be a major problem here - as I listen to the news of clinicians and nurses, teachers and police conference delegates heckling senior politicians, it does strike me that good communication must be two-way.  Who's at fault?  Well I think those senior managers who fail to give good advice, especially when it may not be what politicians want to hear - reminds me of my previous blog on the hubris syndrome.  I also think it way be those who usher senior politicians away from those at the front line, ensuring no 'off message' voices are heard.

I don't disagree with Sir T's view of the world I just think he maybe needs to recognise that the lessons from Tesco cannot immediately be transferred to public services. His view, if the Think Tank piece is anything to go by, an over-simplifcation. So, next time you hear how much we can learn how the public services can learn from the private sector, please remember my attached picture, sometimes it's easier to believe private sector leaders rhetoric when all is not exactly as it's made out to be.

Now, will I buy the Sir T's book?  Think I'll wait until it's buy-one-get-one-free at Tesco and I can navigate the cages to the bookshelves.

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